Banner
    Reflections On "Breaking Bad"
    By Enrico Uva | September 18th 2012 01:00 AM | 9 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Enrico

    I majored in chemistry, worked briefly in the food industry and at Fisheries and Oceans. I then obtained a degree in education. Since then I have...

    View Enrico's Profile
    Since Breaking Bad became a hit in 2008, I'm sure many chemistry teachers across the continent have been asked by their students, "Sir, do you watch Breaking Bad? Because the character reminds me of you." It's not difficult to figure out why. Few popular TV programs feature as much chemistry as Breaking Bad, and most adolescents, have only had one chemistry teacher in their lives.

    After finally getting around to watching the pilot and subsequent episodes of Season One, I admitted that I liked the drama but was confused over the supposed similarity between White and me.
    "Do you really belieive that if I had terminal cancer, poor medical insurance and a pregnant wife, I would resort to making illegal drugs and killing dealers?" , I asked them, smiling.
    "No, but you're both chemistry teachers," was the reply.

    Viewers in general turn to TV and video for entertainment, not educational programming. Yet with newer technology, the medium can be more idea-friendly. Personal video recorded programs and youtube videos, like printed books and online print, allow the user to easily pause, reflect and go back to check the facts and arguments of one part against another. 

    Breaking Bad is not designed to be primarily a science educational program. It's a black comedy centered around moral dilemmas. However, even though the program exposes the dark side of chemistry through its illicit drugs, poisonings and explosions, its scientific content is researched and reasonably accurate. It gets young viewers to realize that chemistry is not black magic but a mature science which makes reliable predictions about the behavior of matter. Here are two scenes that illustrate this well, even though the hydrofluoric acid incident is probably exaggerated, considering the quantities and reaction rate involved. (We'll find out for sure in a a spring 2013 Mythbusters episode.)

    Soon after Walter White synthesizes large crystals metamphetamine, his former student Pinkman is astonished by the size of the crystals. Unaccustomed to meticulous preparation and proper equipment and unaware that they grow large if pure and slowly crystallized, he attributes their beauty to a special if not mysterious talent.

    JESSE PINKMAN: This is pure glass! You're a god damn artist. This is art, Mr. White.
    WALTER WHITE: Actually, it's just basic chemistry, but thank you.

    In another scene, after being frustrated shopping for a low density polyethylene vat large enough to contain a corpse, Pinkman circumvents White's instructions and dissolves the phosphine victim in a bathtub with a couple of gallons of hydrofluoric acid.


    WALTER WHITE: Bathtub? What do you mean, bathtub?
    JESSE PINKMAN: That's another thing. Why do you have me running around town trying to find some stupid plastic when I have a perfectly good tub I can use?
    Soon after, the upstairs tub and its contents fall through the ceiling.

    WALTER WHITE:  What was that you were saying about that “stupid plastic”?.... Hydrofluoric acid does not attack plastic, but it will dissolve metal, ceramic, glass...

    On the surface it would seem unlikely that an educated man would find himself in the original predicament that led to the difficult choices and ensuing complications. What was Walter White thinking, living his life without adequate medical insurance and financial security and yet deciding to father a second child late in life, as if he was guaranteed to physically expire only at the average human lifespan of 78 or so?

    It may seem odd, especially in the case of a chemist who knows that probability creeps into everything. An electron's motion cannot be tracked down to an exact location like that of a planet. There is only a high likelihood that it will be confined to a certain orbital, depending on its quantum state. When molecules react, conditions of temperature and pressure change the probability that they will collide with the correct orientation and sufficient momentum. But for an individual molecule, there is no guarantee that it will indeed react, even though the bulk of its peers may have more than the required activation energy.

    Of course chemists and other scientists are not consistently rational in their work, let alone in their personal lives. They live like everyone else, taking chances, sometimes without hedging their bets.

    Comments

    MikeCrow
    When I worked in the semiconductor industry, we got to play with a bunch of different acid's, but the one that in general got the most respect was hydrofluoric acid, course that might have been because of the picture of the college student with most of his thumb missing they had stuck to the side of the acid hood.
    Never is a long time.
    UvaE
    What I found bizarre when I first learned about HF's  properties in my freshman year was that its KA was only in the order of 10-4. But the number is deceiving because fluoride is not the typical passive ion produced by other strong acids.
    MikeCrow
    Not being a chemist, I think I understand :)
    But with all the other acids, you knew how active they were, and you knew if you got some on you (I was able to avoid that problem), HF not so much.

    Dipping a copper penny into hot nitric acid was always instructive, and then the dry nitrogen box they made for etching silicone based epoxy with fuming sulfuric acid was a good excuse to stay out of the hood room while it was in use.
    Never is a long time.
    If you want to write a review of breaking bad concerning chemistry and its depiction of the science then stick to that and don't go into an analysis of the characters (especially when it seems as though you haven't viewed past the first season).

    I find the section of your review criticizing Walt for finding "himself in the original predicament that led to the difficult choices and ensuing complications" to be offensive and ignorant of the character arc.

    You write:

    "What was Walter White thinking, living his life without adequate medical insurance and financial security and yet deciding to father a second child late in life, as if he was guaranteed to physically expire only at the average human lifespan of 78 or so?"

    This is amazingly misguided, first for the assumption that having adequate medical insurance and financial security is simply a choice. You write as if Walt simply choose to disregard those issues. This is both a callous view of these real issues which affect countless families and ignorant of the character's back story (which provides ample points to criticize, but if you don't want to delve further to make an accurate critical analysis than don't). Then you criticize him for deciding to father a second child, which is ignorant of the reality that all contraceptives and safe sex practices fail and unplanned pregnancies happen. Its not even so much that you seem to advocate that Walt should've aborted his daughter, but that it was simple and easy choice for him to make. This may not have been any part of your attention, but its what comes across from your judgmental words of the Walt we first meet (and again there are many things to judge about Walt regarding his actions and personality both before and after the pilot, you just don't seem to be aware of them). If you want to criticize the character than wait to catch up and you'll learn more information regarding his family and professional career so you can make an informed review and analysis.

    Also as far as the science goes, the meth Walt first produces has a 99.1% purity which is unheard of using any of the methods he utilizes. Though it is a fictional story of Breaking Bad, Walt's ability to produce these levels is reflective of the talent that Walt posses but fails to properly use to advance his career and squanders as a chemistry teacher. Its really not basic chemistry, but a complicated process easily mastered by Walt who had forgotten his talents skills.

    UvaE
    ... reflective of the talent that Walt possesses but fails to properly use to advance his career and squanders as a chemistry teacher.  
    Teaching chemistry effectively, even at the high school level, shocking as it may seem to you, also involves talent and requires knowledge that goes beyond what the kids are learning. And it's certainly not squandered on students. They deserve quality; their parents are either paying taxes or a tuition.

    This is amazingly misguided, first for the assumption that having adequate medical insurance and financial security is simply a choice. 
    It does involve choices. I noticed he has an in ground pool. If for whatever reasons he wanted to be a chemistry teacher, he could have found a position elsewhere in the country or north of the border that paid a better salary and which comes with better medical insurance.  I had the latter but a crappy salary so soon after my daughter was born I moved from the U.S. to Canada.

    But that would have made a boring TV series!

    And I have many relatives in the U.S. who arrived between 1900 and 1967, basically penniless, and while staying within the law, they made family and financial security a priority. Some have had cancer and received treatment. They worked hard and looked ahead. No one's broke.

    As for being ignorant of the character arc, that's becoming less true. I am steadily watching more episodes, and I do sympathize with Walter, but I continue to have trouble stomaching his bad choices.
    To be honest it's a great TV show and it got me more interested in science and chemistry.

    UvaE
    That's great! I wonder if it's had an impact on chemistry course enrollment. A few years after CSI went on air, forensic science became a far more popular choice  in universities across the continent.
    I was a previous student of yours and immediately when I saw the show I thought of you. Not only because you are both chemistry teachers, but also because both of you are bald and both very ingenious when it comes in chemistry. For example, Walter White creates a bomb from taking out a certain compound from an ordinary toy and mixing it with something else. He then recites a fact to Jesse about where it came from. I thought to myself, this is the kind of resourcefulness that Mr. Uva has. Of course in your case, it would be something other then a bomb... I remember, you conducted this experiment in class where you took a compound and mixed it with rubbing alcohol and it would re light a burnt match. You later told us that you can find this compound in dead batteries in order to recreate it.

    I also think so many people relate you to Walter is that when he broke bad, he was one of the nicest people and you would never expect him to break bad. I think this is why the show has a lot of appeal, it shows how even the nicest guy can fall. Not to say you would do these things, but I guess a lot of people would think that if this happened to Walter White who knows, it can happen to you. Even though this idea is completely false, since it's a tv show.

    Although there has been a case where a chemistry teacher actually broke bad.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2204954/Life-Imitates-Breaking-B...

    UvaE
    Excellent! My former student is reading Science 2.0--great not because I write for the site but because it's one of the best internet experiments around.
    because both of you are bald and both very ingenious when it comes in chemistry
    I am not totally bald. I just have low density hair growth and regularly shave my head. I am not that ingenious; I just shave off a lot of non-science related activities from my spare time!
    you conducted this experiment in class where you took a compound and mixed it with rubbing alcohol and it would re light a burnt match
    You mean hydrogen peroxide, not alcohol. The other compound was indeed something you can find in a dead battery: MnO2.
    Although there has been a case where a chemistry teacher actually broke bad.
    He broke bad but showed a complete lack of imagination!